Sunday, May 19, 2013


Thoughts on a Manifesto

Sean Michael Morris’ “Manifesto for Community Colleges, Lifelong Learning, and Autodidacts” is getting some traction, and it’s easy to see why.  Morris argues that we’re in the midst of a massive transformation of higher education, in which students are left much more to their own devices than they once were.  As Morris puts it,

The new culture of learning is one where learning takes place all the time, everywhere, and according to learners’ own preferences and motivations. Disappearing quickly are the rigor, expectations, and outcomes provided by the structures of a traditional education; and coming to the fore is an autonomous learner, who is her own authority on what’s relevant, germane, vital to her own education. Wide and resounding is the call: “The learner has changed! And so has learning changed!” And it follows that if they wish to survive, institutions of learning must change, too.

Backwards run the sentences until reels the mind.  

Although the argument is a bit slippery, Morris eventually settles on the claim that among the existing variations on colleges and universities in the U.S., community colleges are the best suited to work with the new learner.  Community colleges’ relatively clear focus on the needs of learners -- as opposed to the production of cutting-edge research, high-profile sports, or self-referential status competition -- allows them to respond more quickly and creatively to the changed environment than their more hidebound counterparts.  All they need is “bravery.”

As a piece of writing, it’s a bit of an inkblot test.  The “manifesto” conceit suggests a call to action, although it’s not entirely clear what the desired action is, or by whom it should be taken, other than that it should involve “bravery.”  Morris opens with his bona fides as a child of academe -- been there -- and includes both techno-skepticism and an acknowledgement of the obvious failings of the traditional lecture, so readers can find something that appeals to them.  The shout-out to community colleges is heartening, if a bit opaque.  MOOCs get a couple of paragraphs.  It has something for almost everyone.

As a community college administrator, my first thought was that his acknowledgement of the obstacles facing community colleges was far too glancing.  The “accountability” movement is based on “measurable results,” which means, among other things, raising the cost of experimentation.  The measures to which community colleges are increasingly being held are reductionist at best, and often so blunt as to create perverse incentives on the ground.  Worse, since many of the costs we face are effectively fixed, and state funding is much lower than it once was (after inflation, and sometimes even before), there’s far too little slack in the system to survive a failed large-scale experiment.  In this context, “bravery” can entail having the courage to be patient, instead of giving in to the temptation to fire before aiming.  Grants help tremendously, but by definition, they’re of limited length and purpose.

But that reaction, while true enough on its own terms, misses the larger argument.  Morris is taking the emergence of the autodidact as a fact of life, and asserting that colleges have to fundamentally remake themselves to address these empowered new high-flyers.

Color me wary.

It’s certainly true that new technologies offer new possibilities in terms of geographic location.  I don’t have to be in Cambridge to watch a Harvard lecture anymore.  And those of us who remember -- or even now endure -- the 300 person lecture hall can attest that its only reason to exist was institutional convenience.  It’s also true that some students come to college now having had access to the means of cultural production at a level that was simply unthinkable back in the paleolithic era when I was in high school.  There simply wasn’t a 1980’s equivalent of Jenna Marbles, even though her Rochester accent brings back memories.  The space did not exist for her shoulder-padded forerunner to capture an audience.

But even granting all of that, most students don’t arrive at community college having already produced ample portfolios of work, just looking for a credential to certify what they’ve already done.  Most show up unable to add fractions.  Many bring with them long histories of spotty academic performance, undiagnosed learning disabilities, and self-defeating habits that never got corrected.  These are not young Steve Jobs-es who are put upon by distribution requirements.  Most need help not only in building academic skills, but in navigating the institutions and culture of the professional world.  

And that’s where community colleges, as institutions, are part of the solution.

Community colleges, as with other eleemosynary institutions, exist to protect the weak against the strong.  That is their core purpose.  They provide academic skills and credentials that can give students an economic and cultural foothold in society, and do it on the cheap -- by design -- so that students don’t leave with terrible overhangs of debt.  They don’t screen out the students whose high schools didn’t prepare them well, and they don’t deliberately put gaps in financial aid offers to keep low-income students out.  They’re open-door, by design.  

It’s hard not to notice the comorbidity of the DIY and edupunk and MOOC enthusiasm with a continued assault on the welfare state.  “You’re on your own” has an obvious appeal for the powerful, for whom taxes are a felt burden and rules feel restrictive.  In public higher education, we’ve seen a decades long pattern of never quite recovering from the last recession’s cuts before the next one starts.  A pattern of two down, one up, two down again has had predictable consequences.  Now some of the folks who’ve driven the ideological assault on the public sector generally are leaping on technology as a fig leaf to abandon the weak to their own (electronic) devices.

I’d much rather see public higher education follow the lead of, say, Southern New Hampshire University, and experiment with ways to harness new technologies in the service of, rather than as an alternative to, a mission of access.  Use MOOCs and OER and whatever else to fulfill the existing mission more effectively.  That will involve some internal tensions, yes, and some room to move.  But it’s not about assuming that the student has changed.  It’s about doing what we do better.  

Students are still students, and they still need the support of institutions that, Coase teaches us, lower the transaction costs of bundling services.  To the extent that institutions can do a better job with students by harnessing technology, by all means, go for it.  (I’m currently supporting a systematic look at OER on my own campus.)  But let’s not pretend that tech can replace institutions.  Community colleges exist to empower the weak.  Replace them with youtube clips, and the weak will stay right where they are.

"Disappearing quickly are the rigor, expectations, and outcomes provided by the structures of a traditional education...."

I won't disagree, but I wonder if he wants to fly on an airplane designed by people who no longer adhere to the traditional rigor and expectations of old fashioned engineers? An airplane (or a commuter train track?) designed and maintained by someone who only knows what ze deems relevant?

One thing our students thank us for when they return after a few years as a transfer student is rigor. They need it to catch up with students who were well ahead when they left HS.
Amen to Dean Dad and CCPhysicist. I would add that many of our high schools, by embracing an "everyone graduates even if he/she has been asleep at the wheel for 4 years" are delivering a student body to the CC's that is much more passive and under-educated than it needs to be.
Right on, Dean Dad and CCPhysicist! I also share your skepticism about the uncritical adoption of technological quick fixes to the problems faced by higher ed today. Most of the proposals to adopt high-tech strategies in higher ed seem to me to be primarily driven by a desire to save some money rather than to improve student outcomes.

I think that the move to replace the conventional teacher lecturing to students in a bricks-and-mortar classroom with online material taught in a MOOC or by a series of self-paced modules stored on some computer server somewhere will only work for students who are already well-motivated and who arrive at college with strong backgrounds from high school. I teach math, physics, and computers at Proprietary Art School, and I have found that most of our students are not all that well prepared, especially in math. Many of them slept through their math classes in high school, many imagine that mathematics is of no use to them, and many can’t even add fractions.

Most of these students have to take remedial math courses. In the remedial math courses at my school, part of the course consists of students using MyMathLab, a Pearson product which has students do their math homework online. But not every high school graduate is computer-literate, many do not have a computer at home, and many have difficulty in adapting to a computer-based environment. Many of the students have trouble in doing their homework this way, and some of them get so frustrated that they don’t bother to do the online homework at all. If one were to turn such students loose in an environment in which the course is entirely computer-driven and self-paced , most of them would probably flounder and fail, having no instructor to guide them.

How does one use the MOOC on-line approach to teach laboratory courses or courses that require a lot of hands-on training? Would I want to fly on an airplane whose pilot took all of his training on the flight simulator?

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Somewhere out there, there has to be some actual research on autodidacts (noun) vs. self-directed learning (verb).

Ever since my unschooling days I've wondered... people regularly told me things like "well it's great that it worked for you, but most people aren't like you". While I am weird as all get out, I could never tell if I was really weird on this front. It seems perfectly self evident to me- everyone is capable of self-directed learning. Everyone has different interests, and not everyone's interests will naturally lead to success in self-directed learning that is traditionally valued in academic institutions. So how would we know if everyone is an autodidact, we just only notice it for the few people who have quirkily academic inclinations?

Anyone who was "raised an academic", or just particularly weird/geeky in a fashion like myself, feels like a kid in a candy store with the MOOCs, and indeed the digital revolution in information access broadly. It would be easy for anyone so excited to see this as a revolutionary change- when really, most people simply will never benefit from it. If you don't like the institutions (and bravo to Morris for calling out research based university undergrad curricula as "the most vacuous of pedagogies"), it's also easy to see a need for a revolution that not everyone sees. I agree with him that community colleges are better positioned than most 4 year institutions for such a revolution, and I will also grant that a quiet mini-revolution of autodidacts may well occur within them... but I don't know if it can really go mainstream.
The revolution may about to be started. If it is successful, mathematicians, physicists and other x rated science people will be the last to see it.

Likely because x-rated science people are themselves autodidacts and who did need the lessons.

And also because they were hardest bitten by constructionist math.

Some times the developmental students aspire to become self-directed learners: Why don't I make up my own Pythagoras law?

Most institutions have a cap on the number of independent study classes, and here is a reason why.
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